Religious Change and Politics: Comparing Catholics and Protestants in Brazil and Chile

By Patterson, Eric | Ibero-americana, January 1, 2001 | Go to article overview
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Religious Change and Politics: Comparing Catholics and Protestants in Brazil and Chile

Patterson, Eric, Ibero-americana


The religious fabric of Latin America is experiencing radical change - in fact the Pope has called it an "invasion of sects". Until recently, this region has been noted for its long history of Catholicism imported by Iberian conquerors, buttressed by a hierarchical ecclesiastical structure dominating a semi-literate society, which traditionally played a conservative role as chief collaborator to Latin America's procession of elitist and authoritarian regimes. Furthermore, many social scientists link Catholic norms to cultural variables such as the culture of machismo, patronage, willingness to syncretize pre-Colombian religious symbols, etc. (Stoll 1989; Sherman 1994). However, in the past three decades millions have responded to various evangelical campaigns and sought a different religious experience under evangelical and/or Pentecostal Protestant guise.1 For example, one study shows that in a Guatemalan region the population is 52 percent Catholic and 48 percent Protestant, but that a generation ago it was 87 percent Catholic and two generations ago 97 percent professing Catholic (Goldin & Metz 1994). On a larger scale, "since 1960, Protestantism...has tripled its numbers in Argentina, Nicaragua, and the Dominican Republic; quadrupled in Brazil; quintupled in El Salvador, Peru, and Costa Rica, and grown-six-fold in Ecuador and Colombia and seven-fold in Guatemala... Brazil, Chile, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras are reported to have Protestant populations that exceed one-quarter of their general populations" (Smith 1994:119).

Certainly this is an extraordinary voluntary shift of religious affiliation and culture, and has been recognized as such by many social scientists. However, in eagerness to believe that Protestantism may finally provide the cultural framework necessary for democracy and capitalism to flourish in Latin America, many writers have leapt to 'how' Protestantism should be changing Latin American politics without providing much actual evidence that Protestantism is changing Latin American politics. In this paper, I attempt to respond to two related gaps in the literature on this topic. The first is that many of the studies which present data charting differences in the social beliefs and practices between Catholic and Protestant converts do so in isolated rural communities, whereas the true explosion of Protestant growth is in the cities (Glazier 1980; Cox 1995). Furthermore, studies of remote indigenous villages tell us something about that locale, but cannot bridge the levels of analysis divide to give us an accurate picture at the national or cross-national level. A second missing component in current studies of Protestantism is survey data. Many authors expect Protestantism to develop changes in the sociopolitical attitudes and behavior of adherents, but little large-scale survey data has been collected to measure whether or not this is occurring. Finally, as a political scientist my approach focuses on comparison of behavior and beliefs related to politics and society.

Two instruments that can provide a preliminary reference are the World Value Survey and the Latinobarometer.2 Using results from two South American countries included in the survey, I indeed found the anticipated differences between Catholics and Protestants in religiosity and spiritual beliefs.3 Suprisingly, in contrast to the conventional wisdom that Protestants and Catholics should also differ politically, I found that sociopolitical opinions and political behavior remain extremely similar between the two groups.


The historical literature on Latin America records episodes of antiProtestant rhetoric, when the Catholic Church or the government sought a scapegoat for American and British business interests (Bastian 1987; Baldwin 1990). In fact, this sentiment continues today, as some caution about the links of Latin American Protestants to 'right-wing extremists' in the United States (Diamond 1989; Brewer, Gifford and Rose 1996).

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Religious Change and Politics: Comparing Catholics and Protestants in Brazil and Chile


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